Venuleius of Ius Honorarium has posted a mixture of praise and contempt for Christopher Ferrara’s polemics against “Americanism.” I haven’t read Ferrara’s book, but I can guess what it’s like; after all, in my undergraduate days in the USA I was in the business of quoting Diuturnum Illud and Notre Charge Apostolique to bash the founding principles of that proud republic. Venuleius gives Ferrara qualified praise for slamming John Courtney Murray-style attempts at showing that the American founding principles are the cat’s meow, and ought to be adopted root and branch by Catholic social teaching. But Venuleius argues that Ferrara overstates the evils of the American project:
It’s nothing new for a trad to disparage the American Founding on the basis that folks like Jefferson and Franklin were deists [...]; the harder task is proving that the private views of these and other non-Catholic “Founding Fathers” informed the establishment of the U.S. and, more specifically, the U.S. Constitution in such a way that the end result is a country which is, at its core, antithetical to the Catholic Faith. I’m skeptical that this is true.
As a non-Catholic country the US could hardly be expected to be a Catholic confessional state, and, Venuleius argues, if one concedes that there is little in the Constitution which clashes with the Catholic tradition. Rather than being a pure expression of Enlightenment rationalism, he continues, the American Constitution is the expression of political compromise, that does an OK job of providing a certain measure of reasonable order.
The America-is-not-really-so-consistently-Enlightenment-after-all line of argument is one that I’ve encountered before. It often goes along with attempts to show that the American Constitution is not so very different from the sort of mixed government envisioned by St Thomas. I’ve long thought that this line of argument is not very convincing; superficial similarities can mask deep diferences. I’ve just been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I find that he provides me with some good ammunition, by showing with his typical wealth of historical illustration just how wide the gulf really is between pre-modern and modern political order. (I like the irony of using Taylor to support Ferrara; they could scarcely inhabit more widely separated spheres of “Catholic thought”).
Taylor shows how the Enlightenment transformed ancient conceptions of political order — not just at the level of theory, but at the level of what he calls the “social imaginary.” Taylor identifies two related types of pre-modern moral/political order. The first is the conception of “the Law of a people;” a law which the people did not give itself, but which was established in a remote “sacred time” by a quasi super human law giver; a law which constitutes the people as people (p. 163). The second is the one which St. Thomas uses: the notion of a hierarchy of society which corresponds to the hierarchy of the cosmos. In fact, the political hierarchy is part of the cosmic hierarchy. This hierarchy is understood through Platonic or Aristotelian notions of form as something which is itself at work in reality – like the form of an organism – deviations from which turn reality against itself. Thus disorder in the political realm is reflected by disorder in other parts of the cosmos. Taylor refers to Macbeth 2.4, where owls, horses and the even the very sunlight are plunged into disorder by the murder of Duncan.
Now, the key point to see about the pre-modern view of political order as part of cosmic order is to see that the order is not merely instrumental; it is itself the final cause of political life. It’s not just that the hierarchical order of society happens to help people to reach their individual ends, no, as Taylor puts it, “the hierachical differentiation itself is seen as the proper order of things. It was part of the nature or form of society.” (p.164). St. Thomas teaches this again and again, as do Aristotle and Plato before him, but the way in which they most often approach the question makes it easy for people to gloss over just how much this makes them differ from the moderns. Taylor is very good at showing this, so good that he is worth quoting at length:
The modern idealization of order departs radically from this. It is not just that there is no place for a Platonic-type form at work; but connected to this, whatever distribution of functions a society might develop is deemed contingent; it will be justified or not instrumentally; it cannot itself define the good. The basic normative principle is, indeed, that the members of society serve each other’s needs, help each other. In this way, they complement each other. But the particular functional differentiation they need to take on to do this most effectively is endowed with no essential worth. It is adventitious and potentially changeable. In some cases, it may be merely temporary, as with the principle of the ancient polis, that we may be rulers and ruled in turn. In other cases, it requires lifetime specialization, but there is no inherent value in this, and all callings are equal in the sight of God. In one way or the other, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy, or any particular structure of differentiation.
In other words, the basic point of the new normative order was the mutual respect and mutual service of the individuals who make up society. The actual structures were meant to serve these ends, and were judged instrumentally in this light. The difference might be obscured by the fact that the older orders also ensured a kind of mutual service; the clergy prays for the laity, and the laity defend/work for the clergy. But the crucial point is just this division into types in their hierarchical ordering; whereas on the new understanding we start with individuals and their debt of mutual service, and the divisions fall out as they can most effectively discharge this debt.
Thus Plato, in Book II of the Republic, starts out by reasoning from the non-selfsufficiency of the individual to the need for an order of mutual service. But quite rapidly it becomes clear that it is the structure of this order which is the basic point. And the last doubt is removed when we see that this order is meant to stand in analogy and interaction with the normative order in the soul. By contrast, in the modern ideal, the whole point is the mutual respect and service, however achieved. (165).
So this is the key point is that for the older view order is a good in and of itself, but on the newer view order is purely a means to an end. Taylor further notes that the political order comes to be reflected in the souls of the political subjects, and the reflection of that order in the soul is “virtue.” Thus individual perfection, “the highest virtue” is something that the members of the polis receive from the city. Order in the modern view on the other hand,
is directed towards serving our ordinary goals, life, liberty, sustenance of self and family. The organization of society, I said above, is judged not on its inherent form, but instrumentally. But now we can add that what this organization is instrumental to concerns the very basic conditions of existence as free agents, rather than the excellence of virtue (166).
Nevertheless, the primary good is the good of the order of the whole. As St Thomas teaches, that which God primarily intends in the cosmos is order of the whole, as this best reflects his glory; similarly, the primary end of political society, to which the virtue of its individual members are ordered, is the common good of the order of the whole, since it more perfectly reflects the cosmic order. The order of the whole society is a common good, and as such has primacy over the private good of individuals.
This is how one has to understand the teaching against popular sovereignty in Diuturnum and Notre Charge: the common good approaches more to the divine good and is more intimately ordered to it than the private good, and thus the rulers, who have charge of it, must receive their authority from above rather than below.
In contrast the modern ideal of order, being purely instrumental, naturally leads to an idea of popular sovereignty, in which the people delegate just as much authority to the state as is necessary for it to help them preserve their life, liberty and, property.
But what Taylor shows is that the full doctrine of popular sovereignty did not enter the “social imaginary” of the West till long after the new ideal of order had essentially established itself. The new ideal of order influenced the formation of new modes of social practice, but it also “colonized” older forms of legitimacy, such as the idea of “the ancient law of a people,” and transformed them. Taylor sees the American Revolution as a key moment where such a transformation leads to the entry of popular sovereignty into the social imaginary of the West:
The United States is a case in point. The reigning notions of legitimacy in Britain and America, the ones which fired the English CivilWar, for instance, as well as the beginnings of the Colonies’ rebellion, were basically backward-looking. They turned around the idea of an “ancient constitution”, an order based on law holding “since time out of mind”, in which Parliament had its rightful place beside the King. This was typical of one of the most widespread pre-modern understandings of order, which referred back to a “time of origins” (Eliade’s phrase), which was not in ordinary time.
This older idea emerges from the American Revolution transformed into a fullfledged foundation in popular sovereignty, whereby the U.S. constitution is put in the mouth of “We, the people”. This was preceded by an appeal to the idealized order of Natural Law, in the invocation of “truths held self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. The transition was the easier, because what was understood as the traditional law gave an important place to elected assemblies and their consent to taxation. All that was needed was to shift the balance in these so as to make elections the only source of legitimate power.
But what has to take place for this change to come off is a transformed social imaginary, in which the idea of foundation is taken out of the mythical early time, and seen as something that people can do today. In other words, it becomes something that can be brought about by collective action in contemporary, purely secular time. (197)
The American Revolution is in a sense the watershed. It was undertaken in a backward-looking spirit, in the sense that the colonists were fighting for their established rights as Englishmen. Moreover they were fighting under their established colonial legislatures, associated in a Congress. But out of the whole process emerges the crucial fiction of “we, the people”, into whose mouth the declaration of the new constitution is placed. (208)
I think I am now in a position to spell out why the American political order is indeed “at its core antithetical to the Catholic Faith” (and of course something like this holds for all Western democracies). The antithesis is that between what De Koninck calls “personalism” and true Christianity; between the “love of self to the contempt of God” and the love of God in his super-abundant communicability and the of that order which is the manifestation of God’s glory outside himself. It is the antithesis between Lucifer and Christ. It is not a question of this or that article of the Constitution contradicting some of the more time-bound teachings of Leo XIII, but rather of the basic order which is engraved into the modern social imaginary and embodied in the very material relations of modern democracy and capitalist economy contradicting the central teachings of the Christian faith:
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death. (Phil 2:4-8)
Venuleius ends his post with an attack on the practical consequences (or lack thereof) taken by critics of modern political order:
when we’re discussing the traditionalist critique of America, what we’re largely looking at is a band of moderately informed miscreants who have decided to trade in their apparently awful status as American citizens for pathetic longings for a time which probably never existed. Nay, I take (part of) that back. The funny thing is that they haven’t traded in their status as American citizens because no matter how much they might want to tell you otherwise, they enjoy ye olde iPad as much as the next guy with usuriously-generated disposable income. And once you put that in perspective, their “critique” starts to take on an unmistakable appearance of silliness, if not childishness.
Here I think Venuleius has a point. There certainly is a contradiction between condemning the political order in which we live in theory and supporting it in practice. What we need is the kind of revolutionary praxis envisioned by Alasdair MacInyre at the end of After Virtue. And I think there are some “trads” who are attempting something like this — for instance the John Senior disciples who are beginning to build a local “distributist” economy around the Abbey of Clear Creek in Oklahoma.